The spinning top

"I am the Cine-Eye.  I am a mechanical eye.  I, a machine, show you the world only as I can see it."  -- Dziga Vertov

Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (1928)—one of the foundational works of Soviet silent cinema—is now almost ninety years old.  It’s a film whose accepted status as a masterpiece has generally worked to obscure rather than illuminate its greatness; much like its cousin Battleship Potemkin, The Man with the Movie Camera has become one of those movies that students in Intro to Film Studies classes “have to” sit through.  (My own first exposure to it was as a new Film Production student at RIT.)  And that’s a shame, because Vertov’s film (like Eisenstein’s) was never designed to circulate exclusively within the rarefied world of academics and intellectuals. But the question of who, if not scholars and intellectuals, The Man with the Movie Camera is “for” is a complicated one.
As a piece of Soviet propaganda, The Man with the Movie Camera was designed, at least in theory, to appeal to a mass audience; the film presents itself as a documentary (though this is not necessarily the best categorical descriptor for it) as well as a political statement meant to impress upon viewers the importance of the cinema as an ideological tool.  (In this sense it anticipates Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” published in 1936.)  In other words, and in typical Soviet fashion, The Man with a Movie Camera strove to be didactic, politically correct, and entertaining all at the same time.  Things backfired when Stalin found the finished product to be too formally experimental and Russian audiences found it too esoteric.             

Paradoxically, the reasons for the film’s initial failure are what allow it to remain powerful and interesting so many years later.  The film is (again like Potemkin) arguably least interesting as a political film.  Its appeal (for me, at least) has almost nothing to do with its status as a piece of propaganda and everything to do with the dazzling rapidity of its editing, its constant motion—the energy of Vertov as spinning top.  In jettisoning narrative in favor of the free-wheeling movements of the camera, Vertov may have alienated Soviet audiences, but, again paradoxically, he created one of the most irrepressibly kinetic films ever made. 

The energy of Man with the Movie Camera is what has kept the film alive for so long.  Vertov’s desire to film everything, to take in the entire world through the eye of the camera, is insatiable and ecstatic.  I felt a glimmer of that desire when I got my first video camera as an adolescent; I wanted to use it to make a record of every detail of my world, no matter how insignificant.  Needless to say, I wasn’t blessed with Vertov’s gift to transform that desire into art.  (I ended up dropping out of film school after that first semester at RIT.)  But watching The Man with the Movie Camera I recognize in Vertov that same childlike delight in seeing the world transformed via the all-seeing eye of the camera.  Vertov’s film is for anyone and everyone open to looking at the world through that eye.

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